The Changing Legacy
One of the nice qualities of eternal formats, like Legacy, is that decks tend to stick around. This allows players to master their archetypes, and, essentially play their decks as long as they want to. Certainly, this is one of the aspects of the format that draws me to it, as I really enjoy learning all of the angles of a particular deck. This is because Legacy is relatively slow to change. Not every set that is printed brings a plethora of cards that are playable for most decks. More often than not, there are a few cards that help power up some specific archetypes, like Food Chain getting Walking Ballista or Storm getting Dark Petition, or there are some cool, unique cards that inspire building around, like Paradoxical Outcome.
Every now and then, Wizards decides to push the limit of what cards can do and legacy staples emerge. Cards like Deathrite Shaman, Monastery Mentor, and Young Pyromancer have been printed in the past few years, and they have all had a significant impact on the format. However, it wasn’t the printing of any one of these new card that facilitated change. Somewhere along the way, a fundamental change occurred in the way Legacy decks were constructed. This shift happened gradually and it was difficult to see at first. It wasn’t a direct response to any one printing or change, but it occurred as deckbuilders explored some newer cards and realized that the way to succeed at Legacy has changed.
Cantrips Have Become the Standard
A few years ago, there were only a few decks in Legacy that played 4 Brainstorms and 4 Ponders, and rarely any that played more than that. Deck builders needed a clear purpose to justify running more than 4 Brainstorms. Combo decks used cantrips in order to dig for specific pieces they were missing. Canadian Threshold and other Delver decks used them in order to maximize consistency. Many other decks, however, chose to trim down on cantrips in order to increase the density of threats or disruption. For example, Esper Stoneblade tended to only run 1 Ponder. Drawing a cantrip in a deck like that not only disrupted the curve, but was often more effective as a powerful threat or answer. 2 key aspects of Legacy have changed in the past few years.
The first is the printing of creatures that benefit from cheap spells that replace themselves. Young Pyromancer is the exemplar for this type of creature. When every card generates a token, the only thing that is important is that there is a density of creatures. As such, these decks are often constructed in a way that run as many cantrips as they can afford. Most Delver variants run 4 Ponder, 4 Brainstorm, and 4 Probe. Most lists without Delver run even more, adding up to 4 Preordains as well. All of these cantrips are leveraged into a dominant board position because of the power of cards like Young Pyromancer or Monastery Mentor.
In addition, the reprinting of Delve further pushed this concept. I personally attribute the fundamental change in how many cantrips are played to the Treasure Cruise/Dig Through Time era of Legacy. During this time, the only thing that mattered to the blue decks was that they could fill up their graveyard with spells and effectively find either of the marquis delve spells. This incentivized players to essentially max out on playable cantrips. However, after they were banned, I think deckbuilders learned how valuable the consistency gained from having 8 or more cantrips in their decks is. Miracles adopted this method prior to the delve reprint in order to enact their game plan as frequently as possible.
After the Dig Through Time era, other non-Delver decks used this strategy more and more as time went on. Playing more cantrips greatly increased the value of cards like Snapcaster Mage and facilitated playing the still-legal Gurmag Angler, as well. In order to continue to leverage the cantrips into a significant advantage, decks started using card advantage engines which were rarely used in the past. Miracles adopted Predict, which requires good knowledge of the top of the deck at all times. Without Top, these decks have moved to Portent in order manipulate their library, which also helps trigger Miracles on the opponent’s turn. Even Night’s Whisper has been seeing play in the UBx control decks in order to keep up with Miracles and pull ahead of the Delver decks.
With so many decks using cantrips to set up their game plan these days, the landscape of the Legacy metagame has changed and significantly slowed down. Players will frequently be able to solve most issues that they have in their opening hands, and find the answers or threats that they need for the critical turn.
Mana as a Resource is More Abundant
In part as a result of the increased density of cantrips, it has become more difficult to attack player’s mana bases. Although players tend to trim down on their land count in order to fit in these cantrips in a lot of cases, the ability to spend turns 1, 2, and 3 setting up with cantrips makes it more difficult to steal games with a couple of early Wastelands. A lot of the decks that play more than 8 cantrips have defenses against mana denial built in. On the one hand, decks like Miracles have 6-8 basic lands that allow them to completely ignore most mana denial plans. On the other hand, there are decks like UR Delver, which are able to get on the board very quickly, which can leave the mana denial deck at risk of falling too far behind if they simply go after their mana.
Meanwhile, the Deathrite Shaman decks are able to pull ahead on mana as early as turn 1. This allows the midrange and the Delver decks to play around the soft permission that used to be prevalent in both control decks and tempo alike. Spell Pierce used to be a marquis control card in Legacy. Most decks, from Esper Stoneblade to Miracles, played 2 or more of them in their deck. Now, it is more difficult to trade it off in the lategame efficiently because less decks are playing expensive threats, like Jace, and more decks are opting for the efficiency of cantrips and cheaper card advantage engines. The power level of creatures have increased greatly, as well. Not being able to counter Leovold or True-Name Nemesis could mean the end of the game. In turn, this lowered the value of cards like Spell Pierce and raised the value of Counterspell. This wasn’t a valid deckbuilding choice in the past because it was more difficult to develop a stable manabase and afford to spend 2 mana answering a single card.
Prison is Finally Good
Prison decks have existed in Legacy as long as Legacy has been a format. However, up until recently the decks have always been missing something. In the past few years, however, the prison strategies have been given access to various pieces they were missing. The aggressive Eldrazi creatures provided colorless Chalice of the Void decks a quick means of ending the game. Mono Red Sneak attack gained powerful answers to the board in Fiery Confluence and Chandra, Torch of Defiance which doubles as a threat and card advantage engine. Finally, Lands gained Thespian’s Stage, which allows the deck to have a fast combo finish. These prison decks are also quite strong against the cantrip heavy blue decks that are now even more popular in Legacy.
This has allowed these decks to exist in a relevant share of the metagame. Being paired against these decks is now something that needs to be planned for, and this changes how decks are built. Decks without anyway to interact with the graveyard in the main deck are going to have trouble against Lands. Decks without basics or a powerful proactive game plan are going to fall to a Blood Moon or Chalice of the Void. However, the new generation of cantrip heavy control decks are also strong at consistently finding Force of Will early in order to prevent these cards from resolving too early. This is an important factor which means that players are incentivized to pick decks that have more cantrips so that they can play games of Magic more often. While decks like Shardless are still relatively strong, they are less consistent than the other blue decks, which hurts it’s chances at succeeding in a long tournament.
I don’t think any single card that has been added to Legacy has been responsible for the gradual change of the format. All of them interact with each other and have added new dimensions to Legacy. However, I think the most meaningful moment of change was with the omnipresence of the Dig Through Time era. I think players realized that aggressively using cantrips can allow them to enact their game plans more efficiently. Furthermore, deck builders saw the potential of having a powerful draw spell, which wasn’t a commonly used strategy in Legacy before. This resulted in players looking for means of pulling ahead on raw card advantage and trying to leverage having as many cheap spells as they can afford. This works in conjunction with a variety of strategies getting powerful new cards, which has allowed Legacy markedly change over the past few years.
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